Elizabeth “Sisi” of Austria, wife (and first cousin) of Franz Josef, mother of Rudolph, most beautiful woman in Europe, and, well… People either love and romanticize her, or dislike her with varying intensity.
I was reminded of her while reading through Monalisa Foster’s blog:
The more I learn about her, the less I care for her and the more sympathy I have for Franz Josef. Which makes me a little odd, at least judging by the goodies in the shops in Vienna.
She was the younger daughter of the Wittelsbach family. Her aunt had married the Austrian emperor, and so Franz-Josef was her first cousin. He came to Bavaria to meet Elizabeth’s sister, the older daughter. Elizabeth enjoyed riding, hunting, and being the spare. But Franz Josef fell in love with “Sisi,” and they married. She was completely unprepared for the formalities and complexity of the Austrian court, and for her aunt/mother-in-law.
Sisi developed what today we’d call a form of anorexia. Unusually tall for her time, she stood five foot, eight inches, and weighed only 110 lbs. No, that is not a good weight for her height, but it allowed her to keep her ultra-tiny waist (16 inches at the smallest, 18 and a half on average). She’d walk for eight hours a day, exercise, ride, and fixated on her appearance and her tiny waist. Later, she showed signs that today we’d call depression, as did her only son, Rudolph. Rudolph would eventually kill himself and his mistress, leaving Sisi distraught. She sought to escape through travel, especially as she grew older and lost her status as the most beautiful woman in Europe.
In 1898 an anarchist assassinated her by stabbing her. She was in Geneva, Switzerland, and did not have any guards or security. Because she was so tightly corseted, people did not realize how serious her injury was. Franz-Josef was devastated. He loved her dearly, even though she did not seem to return his love.
Over the past 30 years she has become a figure of legend and a heroine of sorts. A museum dedicated to her attracts large crowds in Vienna. Franz-Josef is the villain, if there is one, and she is the loving, beautiful, haunted and misunderstood figure. Several movies have been made about her, and novels, and you can buy replicas of some of her jewelry. (I have one of the replicas and wear it on occasion.)
To me, Franz-Josef is more the figure of sympathy. He should not have married into the Wittelsbachs – the genetics were too close, as we now know. The Habsburgs and Wittelsbachs had been in-crossing for at least 400 years, and the mental illness introduced by Juana “La Loca” had been apparent from the late 1500s on. However, they didn’t understand genetics the way we do, and the Wittelsbach sisters were excellent dynastic options, even if they were Franz-Josef’s first cousins. He loved her in his clumsy way.
The hagiographic treatment of Sisi seems to me to be excessive. She was a sad woman who had mental problems exacerbated by a most unpleasant mother-in-law. But Sisi this and Sisi that grates. Perhaps because I don’t live in her society, perhaps because I admire Franz-Josef for his sense of duty even as the world sped into a new century that he barely recognized, I pity her but I don’t admire her.